Western Wednesday – Stagecoaches

The Oregon Trail opened the way west for intrepid settlers and enterprising miners.  Once it was well established and the roads were cleared and expanded, once towns had grown up along the route and locations in the Rockies and further west were settled, it was only natural that a new method of transportation would take over: stagecoaches.

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The technology behind stagecoaches wasn’t new.  Carriages were the primary form of mass transportation in the pre-locomotive age.  What made stagecoaches different from regular carriages were their size and the way they were supported on the wheel frame.  Rather than relying on springs, which jostled a rider up and down, stagecoaches made use of thoroughbraces, leather straps that supported the body of the stagecoach and gave it more of a rocking motion.Stagecoaches could generally fit nine passengers inside and six outside.  Inside, as you can probably guess, meant that passengers traveled inside the body of the coach.  They would ride on three benches, two facing forward and the foremost one facing backwards, three riders to a bench.  As you can imagine, it was a tight squeeze.  Passengers in the first two benches would often have to wedge their knees between one another to make room.  They would carry their baggage and often have mail under their feet.  But if that wasn’t bad enough, the six passengers riding outside of the carriage would be just as cramped and exposed to the elements.

But what passengers lost in comfort, they made up for in speed.  The most common type of stagecoach was the Concord stagecoach, manufactured in Concord, New Hampshire.  These stagecoaches rarely broke down.  They were drawn by a team of six horses and could cut through the new roadways of the west much faster than any wagon train ever could.

This is part of the reason that almost all stagecoaches carried mail as well as passengers.  More than just mail, in fact.  It was common for stagecoaches to carry gold and cash being transported on behalf of one bank or another.  This, of course, meant that there was a real danger of robberies along the road.

The first major stagecoach robbery in California took place in 1852 when Reelfoot Williams and his gang robbed a Nevada City coach.  The gang had set up a network of informants to monitor when stages were coming and what money and passengers they were carrying.  They carried off the heist, setting a precedent that many would follow.  For that reason, and because of the very real threat of attacks by Native Americans, passengers were advised to carry guns and knives with them and drivers were well armed.

So, you might ask yourself.  Who was in charge of all these stagecoaches?  You probably already know the answer without knowing it.  There were several stagecoach companies in the east that had been in operation even before the 19th century.  But one of the biggest and most successful companies developed in the 1830s as a service to deliver packages between Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.  Adams & Company gradually moved west as steamships replaced overland routes for fast transportation between the major eastern cities.

Adams & Company did well in California after the gold rush, until mismanagement and the emergence of a serious competitor changed everything.  That competitor was a little company started by two men, Henry Wells and William G. Fargo.  The company that Wells and Fargo started offered more than just stagecoach service.  It offered banking and mail services as well.  In fact, by the time the 1850s rolled around, Wells Fargo was widely known to be faster and more reliable about delivering the mail than the U.S. Postal service.

Then came the Panic of 1855.  The California banking system, puffed up on speculation of continued profits from the Gold Rush, collapsed.  Many businesses, including Adams & Company, folded.  But Wells Fargo managed to hold on.  Not only did it hold on, it emerged as one of the only viable options in stagecoach transportation.

Since Wells Fargo pretty much had a monopoly on stagecoach transportation in the west after 1855, they could make the rules.  And some of those rules were:

Abstinence from liquor is requested, but if you must drink share the bottle. To do otherwise makes you appear selfish and unneighborly.  

If ladies are present, gentlemen are urged to forego smoking cigars and pipes as the odor of same is repugnant to the gentler sex. Chewing tobacco is permitted, but spit with the wind, not against it.  

Gentlemen must refrain from the use of rough language in the presence of ladies and children.  

Buffalo robes are provided for your comfort in cold weather. Hogging robes will not be tolerated and the offender will be made to ride with the driver.  

Don’t snore loudly while sleeping or use your fellow passenger’s shoulder for a pillow; he or she may not understand and friction may result.  

Firearms may be kept on your person for use in emergencies. Do not fire them for pleasure or shoot at wild animals as the sound riles the horses.  

In the event of runaway horses remain calm. Leaping from the coach in panic will leave you injured, at the mercy of the elements, hostile Indians and hungry coyotes.  

Forbidden topics of conversation are: stagecoach robberies and Indian uprisings.  

Gents guilty of unchivalrous behavior toward lady passengers will be put off the stage. It’s a long walk back. A word to the wise is sufficient.*

So there you have it.  Stagecoach transportation in the Old West.  Traveling by stagecoach was the only way to go in those days … until the railroad came along and changed everything….

* http://www.sandiegohistory.org/journal/82fall/wells.htm

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4 thoughts on “Western Wednesday – Stagecoaches

  1. Curiously, we had stagecoaches in New Zealand at exactly the same time – to exactly the same designs, even. During our own ‘old west’ days which were thoroughly Americanised, way more than anybody usually imagines.

    • From what I was reading in my research, stagecoaches had actually been around for at least a hundred years before the days of the “old west”. I think, if I’m remembering correctly, that the design was originally British. But since they had a good idea, it spread. So in that way I’m not surprised that they existed in pretty much the same form in New Zealand too. I wonder if they were the same Concord stagecoaches, made in America.

  2. I think some of them were. New Zealand’s 1860s culture harked across to the US far more than it did to Britain; historically it’s become known as a ‘Pacific rim’ culture. The towns all looked the same; our businessmen looked to American systems for inspiration. There was a lot of trade, common patois and spellings (as opposed to British) and even the same people, via Californian ‘forty-niners’ moving first to the Victorian gold mines in Australia, and then Otago in New Zealand. It was only later, in the 1880s, that New Zealand began its unrequited love-affair with Mother England.

    • That reminds me of one of my favorite slightly older movies, Quigley Down Under. Although that takes place in Australia, I just remember Alan Rickman’s character running around wishing he was an American cowboy.

      Ah! You’re making me want to visit NZ more than ever! I have a very good friend, the guy who designed my book covers, who lives down there. 🙂

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